Lameness problems in horses

Signs that your horse is lame can be obvious—such as your horse limping, dragging a leg, head bobbing, or barely able to walk. Obvious signs such as these should be treated by your veterinarian immediately.

However, subtle signs of lameness such as short striding, intermittent lameness, or perhaps lame only in one direction can be very frustrating to deal with. Here’s the mental shortcuts I use every day:

Lameness in horses can be divided into two categories:

  • Lameness coming from a problem in the legs.
  • Lameness coming from a problem NOT in the legs — the back, head, neck, or pelvis (i.e. hip area).

The first question to answer is: where is your horse’s lameness coming from? If you know, you can skip down to that section.

If you’re not sure, the best way to figure it out is to answer this question:

In which gait is the lameness more obvious?

If your horse is more obviously lame at a trot, rather than the walk, then the cause of your lameness is most likely in your horse’s legs.

  • For example:  a Quarter horse gelding is obviously head-bobbing at the trot, but barely shows a head-bob at the walk.  That problem is more obvious at the trot. The cause is most likely in his legs.
    However, if your horse is more obviously lame at the walk, rather than the trot, then the cause is most likely NOT in your horse’s legs.
  • In this example:  an Oldenburg mare is six inches short-strided in her left hind at the trot, and is only one inch short-strided at the walk, then again the cause is most likely in her legs.

This general rule is about 80% accurate.

1) Lameness caused by a leg problem.

(Horse is more obviously lame (or feels more “off”) at a TROT)

Andalusian horse stretchingIf your horse’s lameness is more evident at the trot than the walk, it is most likely that the cause of the lameness is in one of your horse’s legs. The problem can be coming from a joint, tendon or ligament, muscle, or the foot.

You can do Body Checkups to examine every joint in your horse’s legs. Once you do them, you’ll easily be able to determine which joints are moving correctly through their optimal range of motion. You’ll be able to help your veterinarian focus in on the problem area, saving you time and money in diagnostics and treatments.

These are the Body Checkup areas to do to find the exact problem location in the legs.

Front leg: shoulder, elbow, knee, accessory carpal bone, splint bones, fetlock, sesamoid bones, pastern, and coffin bone.
Hind leg: sacrum (top of the butt), sacroiliac, hip, stifle, hock, splint bones, fetlock, sesamoid bones, pastern, and coffin bone.

At this time, no videos are available on the site for these Body Checkups.  However, you can discover all about them in Where Does My Horse Hurt?

Lameness in the front end

With horse lameness in the front end, people often wonder if there is a problem in the shoulder. That’s because the shoulder always compensates for problems in the leg.  And that makes the shoulder move “funny.”  The shoulder itself is rarely the culprit of front end lameness (less than 5% of the time).

Let’s say you’ve gone over all the front leg Body Checkups and they are all normal. That eliminates the joints of the front leg as a cause of your horse’s lameness. The remaining causes include: the foot, the muscles, and the tendons & ligaments.

Tendons and ligaments typically give you a clue with swelling and/or heat.  But not always.   You’ll need to consult your veterinarian for tendon and ligament injuries.

There’s lots of problem possibilities in the foot.  These include abscess, founder, laminitis, foreign object stuck, thrush, frog abscess, and navicular (just to name a few).  You can check with your farrier and if there’s no easy answer…it’s over to your vet.

Muscle strains are always a possibility.  Sometimes muscle strains will swell or heat up.  Sometimes not.  Regardless, most muscle issues are significantly better in two weeks with time off.  You can always rest your horse for a couple weeks and see if that fixes the problem.

Lameness in the hind end

With lameness in the hind end, very often the hocks are blamed first and questions asked later. Hock injections and/or joint fluid supplements are often tried. If these haven’t helped your horse the most common problem is up in the pelvis.

To discover if your horse has a problem in the pelvis, do the Sacrum Checkup. The Sacrum Checkup is one of the most powerful Checkups you can do because the sacrum is one of the two “anchor points” of the spinal cord. Because it is an “anchor point”, if the sacrum is off, then the rest of the spine slowly but surely gets pulled off center as well.  The Sacrum and Sacroiliac Body Checkups are available on the how-to videos page.

If your horse’s Sacrum Checkup results are “probable subluxation”, call your certified equine chiropractor. If your Sacrum Checkup results are “normal”, remember that there are several other Body Checkups to do in the hind end to examine every joint in the hind leg and pelvis.

Let’s say you’ve gone over all the hind leg Body Checkups and they are all normal. That eliminates the joints of the hind leg and pelvis as a cause of your horse’s lameness. The remaining causes include muscles, tendons & ligaments, and the foot.  Please see the explanation above for these.

One important distinction in the hind in is pulled groin muscles. Ouch! A bad groin muscle pull can take up to six months rest to heal.

2) Lameness coming from the back, head, neck, or pelvis

(Horse is more obviously lame (or feels more “off”) at a WALK)

This may seem strange that a lameness can come from somewhere else besides the legs.  But it is true.  Imagine your neck being pinched on one side.  Or you can even pinch your neck right now.  How do you respond?  You flinch your neck to one side.  Now try walking like that (hopefully you’re alone).  If you do try it, you’ll really see how it’s hard to even walk straight!

The same idea applies to other areas of the body.

If your horse’s lameness is more evident at the walk instead of the trot, the lameness is most likely coming from the head, neck, back, or pelvis.

The Body Checkups to do for these areas include: atlas, occiput, TMJ, neck, C7, withers, sternum, thoracic, lumbar, ribs, sacroiliac,sacrum, intertransverse, and tail.

I know this may seem like a long list. However, the Body Checkups are designed to be simple and easy to learn for everyone. By doing these Checkups, you will be able to focus in on your horse’s problem area. You will save yourself frustration and heartache by helping solve your horse’s problem quickly.

You can view many of the Body Checkups on the how-to videos page.

If your Body Checkup results are “probably subluxations”, call your certified equine chiropractor. Hopefully with a bit of luck, your horse lameness issue will be over.  :)

Best of luck to you!